Amateur and student inventions have a long and noble tradition. We all know about Youtube or Ford, but did you know that the guy who invented TV was also an amateur? (thank you, for making Firefly possible.)
Lately, amateur science has been making strides all over the place thanks to better micro-chips, modular components, and huge advances in miniaturization and nanotech. Today’s amateurs (or “independent inventors,” as they are sometimes called) have a lot more to work with than their sprocket-wielding ancestors, and it shows. Here are a few of the most recent, and coolest creations.
1 The Uno Electric Unicycle
This hip-looking uni-wheeled electric bike was built, designed, and conceived by 18-year-old Ben Gulak. Sick of smog, he decided to create something that could be a viable alternative to driving, something like the Segway, only… way cooler. He came up with a cross between an electric bike and a motorcycle, with two wheels side-by-side. The bike is stabilized by gyros; to speed up, you lean forward. He designed it for commuters, and you can ride it for between 2 and 2.5 hours before it needs a recharge. He built it with the help of his grandfather, who is also a tinkerer and worked as an engineer, so he had all the necessary equipment on hand. The secret? The Uno is powered by electric wheelchair motors.
2 The Flying Car
Although I’m still waiting for something that looks like Luke’s landspeeder before I’ll believe that the future has truly arrived, this will have to do in the meantime. Its inventor, MIT student Carl Deitrich, calls his creation a “Personal Air Vehicle.” It’s a hybrid airplane-car, built to make short trips between 100 – 500 miles using the hundreds of small public airports and runways that dot the country.
It’s about the size of an SUV, but unlike an SUV this baby only seats two, plus luggage. It uses gyroscopic control in the air, and once you land at the airport you don’t need to “de-plane” and wait with a hundred other people to snatch you luggage from the conveyor belt – instead, you just flip the “Personal Air Vehicle” into “Personal Ground Vehicle” (car) mode, fold the wings into the body, and hit the highway.The construction of the plane includes all the standard vehicle safety stuff – seatbelts, crumple-zones, etc, but under the hood there’s definitely something special. It uses an ultra-efficient rocket engine that doesn’t require a turbo-pump to deliver the fuel, so it’s both cheaper, and lighter, than any other engine of its kind, which is what makes the whole thing possible. And while Deitrich admits that the idea for a flying car is nothing new, he’s the first guy to actually have one in his garage.
3 The Wall Scaling Batman Style Belt
This utility belt is just like Batman’s, but real. It can lift 250lbs (ie: Batman plus his suit) 50 feet in 5 seconds. It’s supposed to be used for good – towing things, getting soldiers into hard-to-reach places, helping firefighters get up buildings etc. But we know better: it’s just completely cool to be able to scale buildings. There are several models being created now that get you up further, faster, or carry more weight, but the idea is the same.
4 The Wearable Computer
Debuting at TED this year was an invention by another MIT student, Pranav Mistry, whose speciality is human-machine interface. His “SixthSense” computer system is wearable, and it’s hard to describe, except to say that it is completely awesome and kind of crazy.It uses a real-time gestural interface – a camera around your neck and watches your hands, and a projector beside it allows you to project data onto walls, or onto your hand, or onto anything else, and interact with it as if it were real – using a projected calculator, checking a projected wristwatch, or rearranging projected photos.
Some of the most wow-inducing examples presented at TED include a Wall Street Journal that, when pointed at, turns interactive, playing its lead story as a video, projected right onto the paper. You can play, pause, and enlarge the video by pressing the projected buttons underneath it. The set up is basically a laptop, camera, and projector, and the whole thing is internet-enabled, so you can look up product specs and compare prices right in a store, for instance, by pointing at an item and making a certain motion. It’s a hardware mash-up of found technologies from everywhere, but Mistry has put them together into a completely mind-bending package.
5 The Invisibility Cloak
This cloak invariably invokes comparisons to Harry Potter, but it’s not quite that good – yet. Japanese prof Susumu Tachi and his grad students created what they call a “retro-reflective projection system,” which basically means that what’s on one side gets projected onto the other. The jacket is made up of special reflective beads, which function like cats-eyes, reflecting almost all the light back to the source with a minimum of scattering (the effect they harness is the same one desponsible for “red-eye” in photos). When the rearward image is projected onto the front-facing beads, their shape and highly-focussed nature makes the picture look three dimensional… more or less. Each bead acts like a giant pixel. Watch the video to see it in action.
6 The Tumor-Killer
When a guy builds something in his garage that he claims will cure cancer, it’s OK to be a little skeptical. John Kanzius was diagnosed with leukemia in 2002 and, as a radio engineer and self-professed tinkerer, he set out to see what he could do about it. He came up with the idea of using nanoparticles and energy from highly focussed radio waves, to cook cancer cells from the inside out.Radio frequency is harmless to normal cells, and it scatters quickly, so it’s generally pretty useless for highly specific stuff. So Kanzius used the principle of a tuning fork, building two small antennae that resonate at a certain frequency and focus an RF wave between them. It reverberates like a guitar string, generating an electromagnetic field around itself. When metal nanoparti
cles are placed inside the field, they absorb its energy and heat up – but surrounding biological tissues are unaffected. Kanzius had figured out a way to cook a tumor from the inside out, without exposing a patient to the harmful radiation effects of chemotherapy.
Medical trials are still underway, and Kanzius died of complications from leukemia in February without seeing if his invention was a success – but rabbits exposed to the treatment are still alive, and FDA approval is being sought for human trials starting in 2010.
7 The Bedside Nuclear Fusion Reactor
Maybe high school student Thiago Olsen got sick of blowing the household circuits whenever his bedside coffee maker started up, or maybe he just just thought it would be neat to scare the bejeezus out of the Michigan Department of Health, but whatever his reasons, he decided it would be fun to build something several times hotter than the interior of the sun, next to his desk. So, on the weekends and after school he built his own fusion reactor. And it works – he can create ultra-hot plasma in a jar. Unfortunately, it takes way more energy to run it than it creates, so Doc Ock doesn’t have any competition yet. But Olsen didn’t need tritium or enormous, weirdly anthropomorphic robot arms to make his fusion generator run: he built it entirely out of components he got from the local hardware store, along with a few pieces of electronic test gear scrounged from E-Bay. Not bad for a weekend project.
8 The Roomba
Ok, I’ll admit it, the Roomba is one of those inventions that is sort of disappointing when you see it. Although it’s cool, what we really want when we think about home robotics is a fully-functional robot butler like Rosie on the Jetsons, and the Roomba doesn’t really measure up. But creating, designing, marketing, and producing small, self-propelling vacuums is still a pretty cool achievement, when you think about it. You’ve got to start somewhere, after all. In the early ’90s, inventor Helen Grenier, a mechanical engineer and yet another MIT grad (maybe there’s something in the water) founded a company to build robots – she just thought they were cool. What kind of robots? Well, she tried all sorts of different ones, but kept getting asked – jokingly – if she could create a robot to clean houses. She’d almost run out of money when realized that there really was a market for these things, and the Roomba was born. The genius lay in the pricing – under $200 – not just the compact design and simple construction.The company (now called iRobot, presumably because the vacuums allow no harm to come to humans as a result of dirty floors), is expanding into all sorts of other home automation now, too, and has funded robot-building contests all over the US and around the world.
9 The Student Satellite
In 2000, a group of Stanford students completed work on OPAL (Orbital Picosatellite Automated Launcher) and it was launched into space, along with a few other satellites, by NASA. It worked – well, sort of. There were quite a few bugs and it had problems communicating, but technically it was functional. While it required a lot of coaxing to get it to talk, it was definitely a landmark event. Now there are dozens of student-built satellites orbiting the Earth, but these guys did it first.
10 The World’s First Insulin Pump and The Segway (Dean Kamen)
Not strictly speaking a creation, but a guy with a bunch of creations. Kamen dropped out of a mechanical engineering program in the late 1970s. He created the world’s first insulin pump, and founded a company to put his various ideas to work. In 2002 he invented the Segway. While it was a financial disaster, his patents made him rich, so he carried on creating: he made a stair-climbing wheelchair, a tiny dialysis machine (they used to be gigantic), a new vaccine-delivery system… he’s kind of like Edison for the 1990s. His latest invention is called the “Luke arm“, in commemoration of Skywalker’s robotic hand.
11 The Bionic Contact Lense
This contact lens has a circuit on it, which lets you see things as if they were projected in front of you – a road map, World of Warcraft, exam hints, the possibilities are endless. The creators, University of Washington duo Ehsan Saeedi and Samuel Kim, made the device using nano-circuitry and teeny-weeny LEDs, 1/3mm across and 20nm thick. They’re also planning on including a solar cell for power. So far, they haven’t tested it extensively, but it’s made out of the same flexible organic materials that regular contacts are made from, so even though it looks a bit uncomfortable, the creators claim that you won’t even know it’s there.